Setting the scene

Monday, March 21, 2011

The opera star has a lot to contend with: the scrutiny of the public eye; the elusive union of voice, body and soul; the pressure to be glamorous whether in the throes of passion or asphyxiation. From the outset, the potential pitfalls are all too numerous. And that’s before you even begin to assess the risk of being hit by a flying corpse.

Yet it’s a genuine concern – and one that takes on a certain immediacy in David McVicar’s current revival of Aida at the Royal Opera House. Along with the customary array of spears, swords, and extravagant headwear, the props list includes a display of hanging cadavers. Casting an ominous shadow over the cast, it’s exactly the kind of conceit to send a ripple of consternation through the auditorium. But like all props, it comes down to artifice, and some rigorous health and safety protocol.    

So, how do you make a dead body? Antony Barnett, the Royal Opera House‘s chief prop-maker, smiles knowingly. ‘Because these are flown from above, you need to make sure that nothing’s going to drop off,' he replies. 'So we use a metal skeleton which can be attached to a wire. Then for the body we use something polystyrene based, with latex for the skin.’ He’s talking to me in the workshop – a cavernous room dominating the sixth floor of the Royal Opera House. It’s here that all the opera and ballet props are made, resulting in a certain, piquant aroma: ‘It’s  a mixture of paint, dirt, all sorts of things…’ explains Barnett. As if in response, someone at the far end bursts into a fit of violent sneezing. ’He’ll go on for half an hour,’ predicts Barnett.

I’m a little dazed, having just had a tête-à-tit with some rubber bosoms. The Royal Opera House is wrapping up its production of Anna Nicole and the evidence still hasn‘t been buried. Along with that formidable cleavage, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new sex-and-drugs saga involved several quirky props ranging from seven foot nodding dogs to a shop full of giant porcelain figures. ‘We’re very lucky getting to work in ballet and opera as they’re so fantastical,’ says Barnett, ‘mind you, the National Theatre has just done Frankenstein, so they’re enjoying themselves too.’

Fantastical is the word. As opera directors and impresarios strive for increasingly outrageous designs, suspension of disbelief has never been easier, and props have a lot to do with it. Although technically defined as an on-stage object used in the plot of a theatrical production, the ‘prop’ eludes rigid categorisation. In fact the concept is constantly expanding to accommodate fresh ideas. In Punchdrunk Theatre’s production of The Duchess of Malfi last year, scent served as a prop of sorts, providing as much of the atmosphere as the visual displays. And in Peter Schumann’s unique take on The Return of Ulysses even the characters took on a prop-like function as they were played by puppets.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to become desensitised to the ever more flamboyant props bedecking our opera stages. Bloodied corpses barely raise eyebrows. Even the massive nude that presided over the 2009 staging of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre – courtesy of Catalan Theatre Company La Fura dels Baus – was more amusing than controversial.

But extravagant props are hardly the preserve of our times. Even before the advent of opera, its Jacobean precursor, the masque, provided ample scope for wacky decors. For the performance of Oberon, on January 1, 1611, the architect Inigo Jones as set designer dreamed up a palatial hall complete with a throne, multi-coloured lights and a chariot drawn by two white bears. Apparently Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, who took the title-role, had wanted to stage the masque on horseback, but his father, James I, vetoed the idea.

As opera reinforced its foothold in the 18th century, designers continued to devise elaborate props, filling the stage with complicated machinery. At the Royal Academy of Music and Dance in Paris, Jean Bérain the elder was renowned for such stage effects as his ‘flying’ chariots while François Boucher gained acclaim for his flower-carpeted bucolic settings.

At times these sorts of effects were met with more applause than the singers. It’s a scenario with which we are familiar, particularly since the emergence of the celebrity set designer. Marc Chagall, Henry Moore and Salvador Dalí are just some of the A-listers to have turned their attention to opera. Although they did much to glamorise the art form, their props often said more about their signature style than the musical material they were attempting to illustrate. In 1963, Dalí’s engagement with a 17th-century opera seria by Scarlatti resulted in a comic revamp, including a man on stage watching TV, perfumed soap bubbles, a giant weeping eye and paintings of elephants on legs a hundred feet high. Of Chagall’s highly colourful decors for The Magic Flute one New York critic wrote ‘the delicacy, the tenderness of the music were not backed up. They were smothered’.

It is all too easy to overwhelm a score with the scenery, which is why a total absence of props can sometimes provide welcome respite. The directors, Christof Loy and Robert Wilson, for example, are renowned for their sparse, minimalist sets that don’t attempt to steal the composer’s thunder.

Most successful though, are the designers who can respect the composer’s wishes without obliterating them with their own; who can create visually arresting props without surrendering to the demons of their subconscious. It‘s a difficult balance to get right, which is partly why props become such highly valued commodities. At the Royal Opera House, they are carefully stored away post production, ready for reuse in the next revival. All props remain specific to their production; they cannot be swapped between shows, and no, Barnett assures me, he has never been tempted to sell individual items – some of which will have achieved iconic operatic status – on eBay.

But what ultimately makes a good opera prop? In this esoteric field of expertise, it’s the artist’s word that counts. I turn to Barnett for inspiration, and as suspected, his reply is the most sensible: ‘having a good prop maker to make it’, he says.

10 weird and wonderful opera props from around the world

1. A huge elephant on a floating stage at the 2009 Bregenz Festival production of Verdi’s  Aida (pictured)

2. A Forest of Wire Trees in Punchdrunk’s 2010 production of Torsten Rasch’s The Duchess of Malfi held in a disused office building in the Docklands

3. A 450-year old disused Ming temple used in Chinese visual artist Zhang Huan’s 2009 production of Handel’s Semele for Brussels’ Théâtre de la Monnaie (pictured)

4. The Swarovski crystal tiara, earrings and necklace worth $85,000 worn by Maria Callas for her 1956 debut at the Metropolitan Opera reused in  LA Opera‘s revival of Puccini’s Tosca in 2008.

5. Organic structures built out of human beings in La Fura dels Baus’s production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold for Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2007

6.A 30-foot singing dragon and spark-emitting spear used at the Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner’s Siegfried in 1888

7.Reclining nudes and giant abstract shapes made from foam rubber in Henry Moore’s 1967 designs for Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto

8. Pomegranates and peacock feathers in Salvador Dalí’s 1950 designs for Richard Strauss’s Salome at Covent Garden

9.A donkey named Pollyanne, used in Francesca Zambello’s 2006 production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Royal Opera House

10. An oxygen tank used to enable the performer to breathe, in the underwater opera And You Who Will Emerge From the Flood created by LA soprano Juliana Snapper and composer Andrew Infanti as part of the 2009 Queer Up North Festival in Manchester

Hannah Nepil

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